Daniel Defoe and the Scottish referendum

Old_bridge,_Stirling,_Scotland-LCCN2002695059A guest post by Sharon Alker
and Holly Faith Nelson

As two expatriate Scots, we believe that the upcoming referendum vote needs to be decided by Scots who live in Scotland, rather than Scots abroad who tend to romanticize the homeland, enjoying it vicariously, and often unrealistically, through various cultural events and artifacts, including the Highland Games, Burns’ suppers, and the occasional Scottish novel and film. As students of Daniel Defoe, however, we know that if he were alive today, he would have taken a far more hands on approach to the upcoming vote for an Independent Scotland, and he would be adamantly against the dissolution of the Act of Union. In the first few decades of the eighteenth century, Defoe wrote that the union was to be an eternal act which would undoubtedly and unequivocally benefit both the Scots and the English. Working for the powerful English politician Robert Harley at the turn of the century, Defoe was a spy in Scotland, gathering pre-union opinions about the possibility of Union, an untiring journalist, writing myriad pamphlets and other works that both factually and imaginatively naturalized the Union, and a Dissenter, who was a great admirer of the Scottish Kirk and recognized the need for its preservation in Union negotiations. In his capacity as a great Unionist, Defoe has taken on a central role in Tim Barrow’s new play, Union.

In her groundbreaking book Acts of Union, Leith Davis captures the way many writers on both sides of the border negotiated British identity in the century after the Union.[1] She has written on Defoe’s pro-union work, pointing out that he tends to use rational language in many of his pamphlets to counter the mythological force of the figurative language used by those who argued against the Union, such as Lord Belhaven. Defoe had his work cut out for him. The anti-Union position was deeply rooted in a long history of cross-border hostility and it nurtured sentiments of Scottish distinctness and unity. The passionate resonance of history and mythology were a powerful tool to motivate Scots against the Union. The benefits that would accrue from the Union also seemed nebulous. Scotland’s king had migrated to London with his court in the early seventeenth century and it seemed unthinkable that the limited representation of Scots in the British parliament, on the dissolution of the Scottish parliament, could benefit Scotland economically or otherwise. What is more, while Scotland was a known entity, there was no reliable notion of what a united Britain would look like, other than what existed in the anxious imagination of the Scots. Defoe’s job was to help people both north and south of the border to imagine a unified British nation in the best possible terms.

Practical rational arguments (as Davis contends) were a very effective way to accomplish this objective. And we have certainly seen myriad arguments in the current union debates on both sides. On the one hand, it is possible to argue that the strength of Alistair Darling’s arguments has been his emphasis on fact and detail. In this regard, he may seem to be following directly in Defoe’s footsteps. Commenting on the first debate between Darling and Alex Salmond, The Guardian noted, “The no campaign has always believed that as the vote approached, Darling’s forensic dullness would switch from liability to asset.” In fact, the discourse of reason and fact dominates the whole “Better Together” website. There are sections on “The Facts about the Pound,” “The Facts about Jobs,” and “The Facts about Defense,” among others.

On the other hand, the current Scottish arguments for the dissolution of the Union are also solidly grounded in reason. Defoe would likely approve of this attention to reason, even if disagreeing with the overall desire for separation or disputing the accuracy of the facts presented as he was accustomed to doing in the original Union debate. It is perhaps even more important that a rational case be made in 2014 than in 1706 because now Scotland is in an inverted position in the debate. Whereas in the early eighteenth century, readers in both England and Scotland would have been worried about how precisely this unknown thing, Union, would appear and function, now the Union is a known entity and Scots may be concerned about the precise nature and operation of an independent Scotland. The 2013 white paper has been crafted precisely to alleviate this concern by providing facts and specific plans about such matters as Scotland’s autonomy over its political future, business and tax issues, transportation, immigration, childcare, education and agriculture. The weight of the booklet alone (which is over 600 pages in length) affirms that an independent Scotland is no mere chimera, no mythologically powerful but antiquated idea that is irrelevant to everyday life in the twenty-first century. Rather it is grounded in specific, detailed ideas about global governance. It argues that dissolving the Union will provide an array of practical benefits, and that there is a solid and detailed goal that is achievable after a transition period. Alex Salmond has framed this array of policy ideas in an overarching idea of Scottish autonomy and distinctness.

In a recent essay in the New Statesman, Robert Colls comments on the emphasis on the pragmatic over the mythological in the Yes campaign, writing “Alex Salmond has waged a good campaign, make no mistake, and that he has done so without invoking a time when Fingal lived and Ossian sang is creditworthy.” However, Colls adds, “Even so, it is as dangerous for a people’s politician to neglect the people’s myths as it is dangerous for an independence party to avoid looking beyond independence.” Colls comments might make us wonder whether the battle cannot be fought, either then or now, by reason alone. The facts may need to work alongside the power and appeal of the vision of either a firmly unified Britain or a strongly independent Scotland. It is for that reason that Defoe did not rely on reason alone in explaining what an imagined Britain might look like. Rather, he turned to metaphor and symbol.

We have written on Defoe’s use of tropes at length, following in the footsteps of the work of Evan Gottlieb, who, in his 2007 book, Feeling British, writes of the way Defoe uses metaphor to naturalize the Union.[2] Defoe was very aware that the way the Union was described figuratively was crucial to enhancing its appeal, but also very tricky. On the one hand, any symbol or literary figure designed to describe the Anglo-Scottish union needed to stress its indissolvability. On the other hand, it had to emphasize that both nations would continue to be distinct and would be valued for their differences. Not every metaphor could balance these two meanings.[3]

The marriage trope, for example, was not a good one to represent Britishness, particularly given the inequality in marriage in the early eighteenth century. Representing either Scotland or England as the bride in this Union would have been a problem, suggesting profound and unchangeable inequality. For that reason, marriage tropes were most often used by the anti-Union crowd. About seven years after the Union, Defoe explained in The Scots Nation and Union Vindicated (London, 1714) that “the simile or allusion of a marriage is lame and halts in the case very much; for in a marriage the woman is a subject, an inferior; promises obedience, and is call’d by the name of her husband: But here is an entire dissolution of the former capacities and circumstances, and both become subjected equally to a new constitution, and take up a new name.”

Tom Devine, who has recently publically shared his decision to vote yes, uses the marriage trope in a modern context to naturalize dissolution. Devine explained, “The union of England and Scotland was not a marriage based on love. It was a marriage of convenience. It was pragmatic. From the 1750s down to the 1980s there was stability in the relationship. Now, all the primary foundations of that stability have gone or been massively diluted.” If the Union is like a marriage, both nations are seen as distinct and can move toward divorce if the marriage no longer works. Other familial metaphors can be equally problematic, given the inequity of power in families. John Arbuthnot, for example, in crafting a sibling trope to explain the Union, presents a well-fed, powerful brother, John Bull, alongside a feisty but impoverished sister Peg. Yet the natural affection of familial metaphors means that they still have a pretty powerful appeal in pro-Union arguments. David Cameron, for example, commented in September 2013, “We are a family of nations within one United Kingdom. Now is not the time to reduce that relationship to one of second cousins, once removed.” Using such a trope leaves the No side open to accusations that Britain may be a family of sorts, but it is a highly dysfunctional one.

As Evan Gottleib has pointed out, rather than working with familial metaphors, Defoe wisely turned to organic ones, arguing, for example, that ‘[i]f the Union be an Incorporation…it must then be a Union of the very SOUL OF THE NATION, all its Constitution, Customs, Trade and Manners, must be blended together, digested and concocted for the mutual united, undistinguished, good, growth and health of the one whole united Body; and this I understand by Union.” This quotation, reproduced from Gottleib’s book (13), is from Defoe’s 1706 Essay at Removing National Prejudices Against a Union with England. The material body was to become a prominent trope for Defoe, whether he was writing about the wounded body of a divided British isles or the monstrous body of a pre-Union Britain that was only partially connected with the Union of the Crowns in 1603. Both conditions could, of course, be healed by Union.

Have the Yes and No campaigns found such powerful metaphors either to celebrate union or independence? There certainly have been countless tropes used, some of which have caused frustration.  In February of 2014, a comment in The Economist in response to an article on the role of currency in the Union debate explicitly rejects many metaphors disseminated by the media such as “the ‘teenager leaving home’ metaphor, the ‘divorcee seeking to maintain the joint account’ metaphor and now from the TE we have the ‘discarding common sense for ice-cream’ metaphor.” Rather, the writer suggests, “the more realistic ‘partnership’ metaphor, which is, the BOE, is a 300 year old partnership, with 4 equity partners, England, Wales, N. Ireland and Scotland.” This seems like a trope that more accurately captures the Union than familial ones, but it is hardly an emotionally appealing one. Possibly the strongest trope on the Yes side might be the concept of the autonomous individual, with agency over his or her own future.

Defoe was on the winning side of the Union argument. The Union did indeed take place and has survived for a substantial amount of time, despite volatile disagreements in the years that immediately followed. In fact, in 1713, there was a vote to repeal the Union that only failed by four proxy votes. Of course we can dispute the idea that the Union was originally won by a persuasive blend of rational argument and magnificent metaphors by turning to another of our favorite writers, Robert Burns, who would likely gladly go toe-to-toe with Defoe about whether the Union was beneficial to Scotland. The Union, Burns argued, was forged neither in reason nor in a sparkling rhetoric, but in bribery and betrayal. Of the behavior of Scottish politicians and aristocrats during the last days before the passing of the Act of Union, Burns lamented:

We’re bought and sold for English gold-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

And indeed, Robert Harley himself later noted of the Scots that “we bought them.”[4] Defoe, however, wasn’t as cynical. His writings on the Union, though certainly published for propagandistic purposes, suggest that he was genuinely hopeful that it would be a success. He continued writing about Scotland after the Union, defending the Church of Scotland, in particular, suggesting that he recognized that to achieve such success, rhetoric or policy that attacked the Scots would have to be diminished, and replaced by an ongoing discourse of mutual respect. Whether that has been the case over the past 300 years is certainly questionable.   So, for our friends who live north of the Tweed, however you vote on the 18th of September, know that you may be haunted in the voting booth by the residual competing hopes and fears of Defoe and Burns for the future of a nation each of them loved. We’ll let you determine which is the good angel and which is the bad.


[1] Davis, Leith, Acts of Union: Scotland and the Literary Negotiation of the British Nation 1707−1830 (Stanford University Press, 1999).

[2] Gottleib, Evan. Feeling British: Sympathy and National Identity in Scottish and English Writing 1707-1832 (Bucknell University Press, 2007).

[3] Alker, Sharon. “John Arbuthnot’s Family Ties: Anglo-Scottish Relations in the John Bull Pamphlets.” Scottish Studies Review 9.2 (2008), 1-20; Alker, Sharon, and Holly Faith Nelson. “Pamphlet Wars: Tropological Union in Defoe’s Anglo-Scottish Works.” Positioning Daniel Defoe’s Non-Fiction: Form, Function, Genre. Ed. Aino Mäkikalli and Andreas K.E. Mueller (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011); Nelson, Holly Faith, and Sharon Alker. “Daniel Defoe and the Scottish Church.” Digital Defoe: Studies in Defoe & His Contemporaries 5.1 (2013), 1-19.

[4] Eales, Jacqueline. “Harley, Sir Robert (bap. 1579, d. 1656).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004); online edn. May 2007. 27 Aug 2014.

Sharon Alker is an Associate Professor of English at Whitman College,  and Holly Faith Nelson is a Professor and Chair of English at Trinity Western University, Canada.

Image is of Stirling Bridge. By Photochrom Print Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


1 thought on “Daniel Defoe and the Scottish referendum

  1. In 1707 the English administration bribed the Scottish nobility to vote through the Union Act and English taxpayers have been paying a price for it to this day. At the time Queen Anne and Harley were concerned with the strong Jacobite tendencies of the Scots nobility and were anxious to pay them off and so avoid a French invasion. Harley had a number of agents in Scotland working for him of which Defoe was one. There is an answered question. Why did Queen Anne acquiesce in Defoe’s appointment so soon after he was imprisoned for Seditious Libel? I believe, and there is strong evidence for it, that Defoe had family links with Scottish Jacobites and had over the years developed strong ties with them and the numerous Scottish dissenting ministers. On the paternal side of his family, Defoe was a Fenwick, a family deeply divided by religious beliefs: Sir John Fenwick, MP, Third Baronet, was Defoe’s uncle. He was publicly beheaded in 1696 for involvement in a plot to assassinate William III. Backscheider in her Defoe biography expresses amazement at the enormous number of close relationships Defoe had in Scotland on all sides of the issue. Thus Defoe was of considerable assistance to the English administration. What would Defoe believe now? Well, it might depend on who was paying him


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